Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Walking through the 1979 Book of Common Prayer

I hope you will never hear from me any such phrase as our ‘excellent or incomparable Liturgy’ … I do not think we are to praise the Liturgy, but to use it.”

Frederick Denison Maurice

“There have been at least two major attempts within the Anglican Church to restore the quality of life which characterized the church at the beginning. One took place in the sixteenth century. One is taking place in our own time.”

Charles Price and Louis Weil, Liturgy for Living, 1979

“Liturgy celebrates the mystery that is God. This is the fundamental truth on which the celebration of all the Church’s rites depends… Other forms of prayer exist as devotional aids, but only in common liturgical worship can the People of God respond to the command, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ ”
Dennis G. Michno, A Priest’s Handbook, 1998


Today/tonight we walk through our current Book of Common Prayer, adopted for use by General Convention in 1979 after more than a decade of experiment and drafts. When I was a teenager, we had in church what became nicknamed the “zebra books” because the books had stripes on the covers. They were the drafts of the various forms of the “new” prayer book.

When the new book came into use, it felt odd, strange, to many who were accustomed to the graceful poetry of the 1928 prayer book, even if many of us didn’t quite understand the words. It was a hard start for the new book, and a number of congregations broke away from the Episcopal Church (sound familiar?).

The story here at St. Paul’s is that a parishioner chained his 1928 book to his pew rack. The book was buried with him. I’ve think that it would have been nice to preserve the chained prayer book as a reminder that not everyone likes the changes we bring and that somehow we need to live together despite our differences.

So let’s get into the book. How? We could go chapter by chapter, page by page. But that might be a bit dull, and not very illuminating. Let me propose that we explore some of the larger themes contained in the book, and then go into select sections of the book that illustrate these themes.


The first overarching theme of the 1979 BCP to grasp: It is really two prayer books combined, plus a new appendix of various items meant to assist us in our common life of faith. The 1928 book is 611 pages; the 1979 prayer book is 1,001 pages.

The 1979 book contains: (1) much, but not all, of the contents of the 1928 prayer book and (2) an updated contemporary language prayer book with additional “offices” that were not in the earlier prayer book and (3) an appendix containing psalms, extra prayers, historical documents foundational to the Church; an instructional “Outline of the Faith” in a Q&A format; and calendars showing what biblical lessons to read on Sundays, ordinary weekdays, and saint days.

The inclusion of the 1928 prayer book consists primarily of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, the Eucharist (two versions), and burial of the dead. Like the 1928 book, it is in Elizabethan English, using words like “thee” and “thou,” and “Holy Ghost.”

The contemporary language prayer book contains Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, the Eucharist (four versions), and burial of the dead. Added were Compline (night prayers), and newer versions of baptism, confirmation, marriage, celebration of new ministry, and the ordinations of deacons, priests and bishops. Also added were “pastoral offices” that were not in the 1928 book, most notably “Ministration to the sick” and “Ministration at the Time of Death.” There was another huge addition: liturgies for all three days of Easter, particularly an opulent Great Vigil of Easter celebrated on Saturday night before Easter Sunday. We will talk about these liturgies closer to Easter.

On the surface, many of the differences appear to be about language: Look at BCP p. 333:

The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.
It is meet and right so to do.
It is very meet, right and our bounden duty…

Now look at BCP p. 361:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to him (God) thanks and praise.
It is right, and a good and joyful thing…

The differences in language are subtle and not just stylistic. For example, Look at BCP p. 66, Rite I, at the Apostles Creed. Jesus descends into Hell in this version (closer to the original), symbolizing that Jesus opens the gates of Hell to free sinners. That language is softened in the contemporary version: BCP page 120, Jesus descends to the dead. Arguably, the 1979 got this one wrong.

A major difference between the 1928 and 1979 books came with baptism, and to that we now turn:


The emphasis of the baptismal rites in earlier prayer books had been around curing human depravity; baptism had become something of a vaccine against it. Culturally, baptism had become “Christening” and was done often in private. What had begun in the early church as an elaborate initiation rite had become what was described by some as “the arid ten words” in the 1928 book.

The 1979 prayer book, while not purporting to fully bring back the elaborate baptismal rites of the Early Church, brought the emphasis of baptism to the gifts of the Spirit and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (and that the Resurrection has something to do with us). Baptism also now includes a challenge to us in how we live out our life in a faith community.

Turn to BCP p. 299, note the opening salutation: “One Lord, One faith, one baptism.”

Those words encapsulate the meaning of baptism: that there is One God, that baptism is once, for all time, and includes the baptized fully into the Christian faith everywhere and forever. The whole thing is right there.

BCP p. 302 – The baptismal examination: Harkens back to the Early Church practice of lengthy preparation and then exorcism before baptism. The idea here is that baptism requires the renouncing evil, and pledging to live a new life. You might say these short words are a pale imitation of the ancient rites. The new rite deemphasizes human sinfulness without completely dispensing with the theology behind it. Human depravity is still there, but baptism moves beyond that by moving into the baptismal covenant.

Baptismal Covenant

BCP pps. 304-306 – This is the heart-and-soul of the baptismal pledge and challenge. First asks us to recite the ancient Apostles Creed, which is the basic baptismal creed, as a statement of the faith. Look at the creed as joining in the same words as the earliest Christians would have said, praying the same prayers, walking with them as symbolic of there being “One Faith, one baptism.” We join with them in their baptism, bringing us in communion with all Christians in all times and places.

The covenant then moves to a pledge on how we will live out our life together in faith. We pledge to love our neighbor as ourselves and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Those are tough words to live by, and we pledge “I will, with God’s help.” The emphasis is that our living out our baptismal covenant is a gift of the Spirit and we can’t do it without God’s help.

The 1979 prayer book added a new prayer to the baptismal rite: the “Thanksgiving over the Water” BCP p. 306; notice the amenesis – the remembering – that is in the prayer; water is remembered as symbolic of how the oppressed out of bondage “through water” from Egypt, and water is remembered as symbolic of the baptism, death and resurrection of Jesus. The water is a physical outward reminder that we are part of this story.

Finally, the 1979 prayer book included the blessing of the baptized, or “sealing” with Holy Oil. The oil used is blessed by the bishop during Holy Week, and then taken to all of the parishes. The oil is a reminder, again, that it is “one baptism” and we are all connected to each other through our baptism; bishops and their blessings are an outward symbol that we share in this baptism. Holy Oil was used in baptism in the early church, and the baptized were drenched in oil. Now we get only a dab on the forehead.

One of the theological changes brought about by the 1979 prayer book was the realization that baptism represented a full entry into the membership of the Church. From that flowed the idea that baptism was full entry to the Lord’s Table. That shift was huge; previously only the confirmed were allowed to come to Communion. Confirmation was now understood as an adult affirmation of the faith, but it conferred no particular special rights. With the 1979 prayer book, all the baptized were included at the Table, no matter their age. 

Sunday worship

A major reform represented by the 1979 prayer book was to return the Eucharist, or Communion, to being the principal service of Sunday. I will say more on why a little later.

Our Sunday worship can be seen as two liturgies: (1) The Liturgy of the Word (the biblical readings), and (2) The Liturgy of the Table, or the Eucharist.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer provides six formats for the Eucharist; two are in Rite I, with the Elizabethan-style language. Four more are in contemporary language, called Rite II. All of these prayers, in some manner, are based on the Prayer of Hippolytus in the 3rd century.

The 1979 prayer book also needs to be seen as part of the larger ecumenical liturgical reform movement of the 1960s, arising from Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church. Eucharist was to be made by the people, not the priest alone, hence the Table was moved to the center of the church. Moving the Table to the center also symbolized the centrality of Eucharist in our walk of faith.

In both Rite I and II, the Sunday service maintains Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s practice of beginning each worship service with a series of gathering prayers, called the “collects.” The word “collect” is an English word that means – wait for it -- collect. The idea is that we collect the common longings of our hearts and souls into a single prayer representing the common prayer of that week.

We start with the “Collect for Purity,” p. 355, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…” The prayer is meant to center and focus us for our time of worship together.

Then comes the “Collect of the Day.” Each Sunday has its own collect, and most were written or adapted by Cranmer. The traditional versions, with Cranmerian language, begin on p. 159, or on p. 211 with contemporary language. Note that the first collect is the First Sunday in Advent; that marks the beginning of the church year, and all of the lectionary cycles begin on that Sunday.

The collects bring us to the biblical readings – the Liturgy of the Word. The point of the sermon is to connect the old story – the remembering – to our story. The sermon is not a lecture or a pep talk, but part of our common amnensis.


The 1979 BCP contains another major innovation: calendars for biblical reading throughout the year, beginning on p. 888. The calendar of readings is called “the lectionary,” and each reading is called a “lection.” The 1928 and earlier prayer books had assigned readings for each Sunday, and the readings never varied from year to year.

The 1979 adopted the practice of the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and other churches by assigning biblical lessons to be read in church in a three-year cycle. Each Sunday has its own set of biblical readings; the lectionary is another practice of the early church, and ours parallels the earliest known lectionaries.

The idea of the lectionary was to put the Episcopal church in synch with other churches, hearing the same lessons each Sunday, and to give the faithful more biblical readings than they had ever had before.

An Episcopal lectionary was first used in 1969 and modified several times before adoption into the 1979 book. It was a major innovation at the time, however, the Episcopal lectionary also stood alone among all other churches in the specific assignments for each Sunday. Although many of the readings were the same, or similar, we were still doing our own thing.

The Episcopal Church in 2006 adopted the Revised Common Lectionary, the same as in the Catholic, Lutheran and other churches. The idea here is that we are hearing the same biblical lessons in our church as those in other churches, across denominational lines, giving us a connection with those churches despite our differences.

The Sunday lectionary is marked as Year A, B, or C, and each year emphasizes a particular gospel. We are currently in Year B, the year of Mark. Year A is the year of Matthew, which the early church considered the first-among-equals of the gospels (hence it is also first in the New Testament). Year C is the year of Luke. The Gospel of John is interspersed in all three years.

Following the sermon is the Nicene Creed, written in the 4th century as a loyalty oath for bishops and to solve issues of orthodoxy. Following that are the Prayers of the People, p. 383, an innovation of the 1979 book designed to foster more lay involvement in the leading of the worship.

Thence to The Peace, p. 360, echoing Paul’s admonition that we should not come to the Table for communion until we have forgiven each other and “made peace.” The ancient liturgies ordered people to leave the church and not return until they had done so.

It is to the Eucharist we turn next week.


  1. Which rite do you think is "better"? I claim to prefer the 1928 BCP, but when I examine the 1928 Baptism vs the 1979 Baptism, the 1979 seems like the better baptism rite to me.
    I don't know what to think.

    1. Hi Martin -- thanks for your comment. You would need to define what you mean by "better." The 1979 book is fuller than the 1928 (more rites) and is focused on Baptism and Eucharist as the principle sacraments of the church. The language is more accessible than 1928, though the 1979 book is now more than 30 years old and feels dated in places, particularly with masculine pronouns. The purpose of this blog is not the critique the book but is as a companion to a course we taught giving a survey of the BCP. Blessings to you.